Fishy tales and finery
Country cosy ... Ballyvolane's dining room.
A historic country estate is charming, writes John Maddocks. Just don't mention bumps in the night.
"IF ANYTHING goes bump in the night, just walk into our bedroom upstairs and tell us," my host Jenny Green says as she shows me my room at Ballyvolane House in County Cork. "We don't have room keys or locks here and we've never had any trouble."
The warmth of this reception and the informality take me by surprise. Traditional country houses are usually more austere, with lists of rules and sometimes an imperious attitude to go with them.
"Help yourself to a drink from our honesty bar," Jenny tells me. "And if you need anything else just wander into the kitchen. There's generally someone around."
There are six charming, well-appointed bedrooms at Ballyvolane. My room is furnished simply but stylishly, with a comfortable bed, armchair, standard lamp with a white shade and an antique table with a mirror. There is also a retro-looking radio, a television set and an interesting collection of books and magazines. But it's the view over the beautiful landscaped gardens and trout lakes from the large window that gets my attention.
The setting of Ballyvolane, which means "the place of springing heifers", is an outstanding feature, as this is the quintessential Irish country retreat. You follow leafy lanes near the town of Fermoy before reaching a driveway that takes you through verdant fields and stands of tall, 300-year-old ashes and oaks, past a walled garden to the house's entrance. Friendly dogs rush out to greet you.
Built in Georgian style in 1728 for a retired lord chief justice of Ireland, Ballyvolane was modified 120 years later with an Italianate design. There have only been three owners and currently four generations of the Green family live here.
But the sense of history doesn't equate to stuffiness. I'm made to feel like a visiting family friend. So before dinner, as I sit with a drink in the exquisite music room, I'm joined by Justin Green. He took over the running of Ballyvolane with Jenny from his father in 2004 after extensive experience in hospitality in Britain and Asia, including Bali. Justin and Jenny met in Hong Kong, where Jenny was also working in the hotel industry. Their unobtrusive professionalism underpins the distinctive fusion of elegance and cosiness that pervades this multi-award-winning property.
"If you wish to eat here tonight, we invite guests to dine communally at the main dining table as it creates a party rather than a restaurant atmosphere," Justin tells me. "But you can dine separately if you like, of course. Oh, and we serve breakfast until midday in case you want to stay up for some late drinks."
I overcome any reservations I have about dining with complete strangers and join the other guests at the candle-lit baronial table. I sit next to George, who is visiting with his wife and daughter from Hampshire. George is a former military adviser to the British government and gives me some surprisingly forthright views about his opposition to the Iraq war.
"Intelligence never thought there were any weapons of mass destruction and the army chiefs advised the government against going in," George says.
It might not be light dinner chitchat but it's interesting. The ladies are keener to discuss horses and golf (there are 20 golf courses near Ballyvolane), while James and his son Henry, from Wales, are here for the fishing. James has given Henry a two-day course in fly-fishing at Ballyvolane as a birthday gift.
"The Blackwater River undoubtedly has Ireland's best salmon fishing and Ballyvolane has a number of good beats," James tells me. "It's the ideal place to learn to fish."
Talk of fishing seems appropriate, as tonight's four-course set menu includes poached wild salmon, which turns out to be very good. The fare at Ballyvolane is in the slow food tradition and most of the fruit and vegetables are grown organically in the walled garden. Other ingredients are sourced from local artisan producers in Cork.
After several glasses of wine, the conviviality level rises. I learn more about fly-fishing and horses as well as another military secret or two. After dinner we make our way to the music room and have a few drinks from the honesty bar in front of the fire.
When I finally make it to bed after bidding my new friends good night, I lie awake thinking about a bizarre aspect of Ballyvolane's history.
In 1730, the elderly tenants, Andrew St Leger and his wife, were brutally murdered by their butler and maid for their valuables, which were supposedly buried in the shrubbery somewhere on the property. The butler and maid were subsequently tried and convicted. The butler was hanged, drawn and quartered and the maid was also executed. Despite numerous searches, the valuables have never been recovered.
When Ballyvolane was being renovated in 1848 and reduced by a storey, bloodstains were discovered on the floorboards in the main bedroom, stains which have been impossible to remove. This gory image captivates my mind after I turn off the bedside light.
It's a still, dark night and very quiet. Did I hear something go bump in the hallway outside my room?
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland.
Ballyvolane House, Castlelyons, near Fermoy, County Cork, Ireland. +35 3253 6349, ballyvolanehouse.ie
Etihad flies daily from Sydney to Dublin and code shares with Aer Arann on flights to Cork. Cork International Airport is a 30-minute drive from Ballyvolane. By car, Ballyvolane House is 228 kilometres south-west of Dublin, which is about a 2½-hour trip.
Double rooms with ensuite are $143 a night from April 1 to September 30 and on weekends throughout the year. From October 1 to December 24 the rate is $123 a night. Dinner is $80 a person.
Chic modern hospitality in a sensational traditional setting.
While the food is excellent, it is a little overpriced.
Walking through Ballyvolane's formal, walled and woodland gardens. Lingering beneath ancient beech and oak trees is a magical experience.